What Have You Done For Humanity Today?

Benjamin_Ferencz

I am a true baby boomer, one of the millions of children born in the immediate aftermath of World War II. I grew up in a time when stories of that horrific conflict were less like history and more akin to the kind of vivid recollections that parents recount from their own lives. The people who taught me about what happened there had endured the hardships, but all of their memories paled in comparison to those of the Jews and outcasts who were caught up in the murderous horror of the Holocaust. From the very personal diary entries of Anne Frank to the images of the camps that I saw in grainy black and white detail, I grew up wondering how the moral degeneration that overtook so many Germans can overtake ordinary humans. I have been haunted by concerns of man’s inhumanity to those different from themselves that seems to be  repeated a common theme in the long story of mankind. Nonetheless I remain optimistically hopeful that quite slowly we humans are inching toward more and more acceptance and protection of the rights of each person.

Recently I came across the story of a quite interesting individual whose biography and philosophy give me great expectations. His name is Ben Ferencz, and he is the last living prosecutor of war crimes at Nuremberg. At ninety eight years old he is still quite outspoken in his belief that wars have the capacity to bring out some of the worst possible instincts in people, causing ordinary souls who might otherwise have offered goodness to the world to evolve into monsters. His solution to this problem is to work as hard as possible to prevent and perhaps one day eradicate war entirely.

Mr. Ferencz is an interesting character who has lately been featured on the CBS Sunday evening program Sixty Minutes and in a Netflix documentary, Prosecuting Evil. He is now ninety eight years old, born in what was once Hungary and now is Romania. His parents managed to immigrate to the United States in 1919, traveling to New York City on a steamer ship much like the ones that brought my own grandparents to Galveston, Texas in that same decade. He recounted the hardships of being a third class passenger sleeping on the deck in all kinds of weather. Once he and his family reached America things did little to improve. Their lives were difficult and they felt very alone, but much like my grandparents they always believed that as bad as things were here, they were infinitely better than the conditions that they had left.

Mr. Ferencz had a special teacher in high school who recognized his giftedness and encouraged him to attend college, something that neither he nor anyone in his family had ever thought to do. Eventually he earned a law degree at Harvard University where he duly noted how out of place he felt among his well dressed wealthier classmates. Nonetheless he forged an alliance with one of his professors who was engaged in research into war crimes and human rights. That connection ultimately led him to Nuremberg at the age of twenty seven.

Ben Ferencz is a small man who had to stand on a pile of books to be seen over the podium from which he would prosecute the war criminals. He had no experience inside a courtroom, and yet the images of Auschwitz that he had experienced from a visit propelled him to find justice for the millions who had been murdered. Thanks to the meticulous record keeping that the Nazis used to keep track of the slaughter, he had more than enough evidence to convict.

Mr. Ferencz described how he and the others who tried German citizens for their crimes had purposely selected people like doctors, lawyers, formerly respected businessmen as their defendants to emphasize the diabolical nature of what had taken place. He noted that each of the men had been highly educated and seemingly on the road to exemplary careers until the machinery of war and propaganda had warped their sense of right and wrong to the point of turning them into unthinking monsters. He was particularly surprised that none of them were ever willing to express sorrow for what they had done, instead insisting that they were attempting to prevent an even greater danger from overtaking the world. To this day it is difficult for Ferencz to speak of the horrors that he uncovered or the degradation of the character of people should have known better.

Mr. Ferencz continued to work for the rights of all people throughout his long career. He built a good life for himself in America along with his wife of many decades who is also ninety eight. His children say that they grew up with a question that their father asked them regularly, “What have you done for humanity today?” It has been his life’s compass, guiding him to the conclusion that our ultimate goal should be to one day find a way to eradicate wars forever. It’s a tall order but we might begin by doing something for mankind one day at a time, one person at a time. If enough of us begin that process perhaps a tidal wave of goodness may one day overtake the world. 

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Finding Hope

people gathered inside house sitting on sofa
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

Statistics can be a powerful way of understanding trends in our society, but they can also be misleading. Learning the truth about the numbers that we see requires analysis, critical thinking. Since we are continuously bombarded with information regarding the state of our world based on statistics we need to consider what that data is actually telling us. Something as simple as the intervals of a graph has the power of visually changing the way we interpret the facts. So it is with the ever recurring claim that the lifespan of the average American has continued in a downward direction since its apex in the nineteen sixties. It’s important that we begin to understand what that bit of information actually means, and what we may need to do to halt the decline.

We are often told of the need to improve medical care in this country by the use of this astounding statistic. For most of us it simply seems almost impossible to believe that we have such phenomenal medical facilities and still are losing the battle of saving lives, and yet it is real. A deeper analysis demonstrates that the downward trend is related mostly to alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. It is not so much that our country is lacking in quality medical care as that we have an epidemic of self harm that results in deaths from overdoses, cirrhosis of the liver, and increasing numbers of suicides, especially and shockingly among our middle age population. It is a quiet and grim trend about which we say little, but it is prevalent all across the country and most particularly in areas where businesses have failed and lifestyles have drastically changed.

HBO in conjunction with Dr. Sunjay Gupta filmed a documentary called One Nation Under Stress that attempted to get to the heart of why so many are turning to drugs, alcohol and even death as answers to problems. We know that addictions can be difficult to overcome, but what attracts people to chemical means of coping with anxiety in the first place? Why are ordinary middle class individuals in so much pain that they feel compelled to shut out their sadness with chemicals that alter their brains and damage their health?  What is really happening?

Dr. Gupta and the experts that he consulted note that our society is continuously and relentlessly changing, particularly in small towns that often rely on particular industries for the welfare of the populace. Many of the old avenues for work are being eliminated and in the process people find themselves suddenly left with no meaning or income in their lives. The losses that they incur both physically and emotionally drive them to seek solace in harmful ways or to despair entirely. Additionally our society has lost many of the support systems that were once so prevalent. The extended family units and neighborhood associations that were once so common have crumbled in many ways leaving individuals feeling alone and unable to cope. In fact, a certain irony is that recent immigrants are actually doing better than long time citizens because they cling to one another in communities that emphasize care and support.

Those in the middle of the economic spectrum are the most likely to feel the weight of stress. They are subjected to a kind of collective pressure and worry about losing their status and all of their comforts. They often feel quite alone in their struggles and so the abuses to their bodies and minds begin. They are reluctant to share their concerns, and often feel that they have nobody whom they trust enough to do so anyway. The anxiety bears down on them both mentally and physically.

I experienced a kind of microcosm of such feelings during the rains of hurricane Harvey which so inundated my city. My husband Mike and I were alone in our home hearing reports of devastation that was affecting both strangers and dear friends and family. Mike had suffered from a stroke only a few weeks earlier and we had been told that his chances of suffering from another attack were at their highest during this time. I was quietly frantic with worry, so much so that I was hardly sleeping and had to keep my mind occupied by preparing my home for the possibility that it might flood. When my daughter and her family had to leave their neighborhood for fear that the levee that protected their home high fail I felt incredibly alone with the realization that they were now so far away and Mike and I were so isolated from everyone. It was a series of reassuring texts from a former student who assured me that he was on alert if Mike and I needed a rescue that kept me from totally losing my composure. The lifeline that he gave me quelled my fears as did the random meetings with a neighbor across the street with whom I spoke as we both assessed the drainage system that was working to keep the water away from our homes. Facebook also gave me a way of knowing what was happening to friends and members of my family. It provided me with a way of expressing my anxiety rather than bottling it up inside. Ultimately I made it through those horrific days, but I found myself wondering if it would have been possible without those human connections that kept me grounded.

What happens when a person feels that there is no one to help? How does one cope when the pressure is not for just a few days but over a long period of time? What might each of us do to help those who have lost their way? Do we sometimes underestimate the power of a text, a message, a phone call in changing the tenor of a person’s thoughts? Have we emphasized independence so much that we have lost the emotional support of multi-generations living and working together?

Mike and I were recently discussing the Great Depression. Our parents were children during that time. It was our grandparents who bore the full brunt of that era. We noted that they survived by sharing responsibilities and resources. Whole families of sons and daughters and cousins and grandparents pooled their funds and their food to keep afloat. It was a cooperative effort that brought our ancestors through the tragedy. Hidden in their efforts was a great deal of love. Our people understood that the were going to make it because so many cared about the welfare of each individual.

We would do well to reinstate the power of family and neighbors to ease suffering. Old people should feel assured that they will find the care that they need if they become sick. Young folk should know that they will have the encouragement and support to launch themselves as adults even when they make mistakes. Those in the middle should never be reluctant to ask for help when things go awry. If we open our hearts and begin to embrace the people for whom we care perhaps we can stem the tide of self medication and self destruction that is literally killing people in our midst. The change that we need is to be found inside our relationships. If we focus on strengthening them many of our problems will be solved.

They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not

For the Fallen

BY LAURENCE BINYON

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 

England mourns for her dead across the sea. 

Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 

Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 

There is music in the midst of desolation 

And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 

They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning 

We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 

They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 

They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 

They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 

As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 

To the end, to the end, they remain.

Source: The London Times (1914)

Peter Jackson, perhaps best known for his brilliant work on The Lord of the Rings, has produced a stunning documentary using remastered film from World War I. He was given privy to hundreds and hundreds of hours of old films from that era along with a mandate to create something stunning, different. His final product, They Young Shall Not Grow Old, is a moving homage to the young men who so gallantly volunteered to fight in a war that they so little understood. It boldly demonstrates their bravery and their innocence in heartbreaking scenes that remind us of the treasures that are lost when we send our youth off to war.

Jackson had to first create a unified story from the millions of images that he found in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. He chose to focus on the stories from British men who had told of their personal experiences during World War I in an oral history project created in the nineteen sixties. Using only their voices and actual footage from the time of the war Jackson paints a portrait of bravery and fear as we follow the young men who began as naive innocents in support of their country only to learn how horrific battle can actually be.

Jackson’s challenge was to make the old footage more modern and easy to watch. Most of the film was in terrible shape, almost unusable in many instances. It was too dark or too light, blotchy and prone to appear jumpy. Using modern techniques Jackson and his team were able to adjust the speed, add appropriate colors and even create sound. The result was a stunning portrait of real individuals who brought the feelings associated with that war to life.

Jackson’s own grandfather participated in World War I and so his film was a labor of love for a man who in many ways became broken as a result of his participation in that awful chapter of history. The documentary demonstrates the humanity of the ordeal in the faces and voices of real people. Many of the men appear to be barely within reach of adulthood and yet they were to endure unbelievable horror in days spent in the trenches and the battles. Jackson pictures one group staring at the camera with obvious fear in their eyes and later notes that virtually all of them would die. It would be the last image of them alive.

Jackson brilliantly brings both the glory and the brutal reality of war to life in a way that no amount of acting is able to do. It is a stunning feat that will not soon leave my mind. Sadly the documentary will only be shown twice in December, at least at this point in time. I believe that it is such an important work that it will eventually become available to a wider audience. It is a film that every one of us should view.

God Knows Where I Am

snowy road
Photo by Nicolas Postiglioni on Pexels.com

I have had two passionate causes in my life. One was made by my own choice. The other was forced upon me by circumstance. Both of them have been major forces that weaved through every single day of my adulthood and seemingly defined my purpose here on this earth. One is a popular political football of sorts, often discussed but rarely resolved. The other is almost taboo, the sort of topic carefully whispered about, and almost always entirely misunderstood. Of course I am speaking of both the education of our young people and the almost haphazard way in which we deal with those among us who are mentally ill.

Those who know me well and those who read my posts understand that I have devoted myself to helping students and their teachers to find quality classrooms and educational standards that include learning how to think critically and how to lead meaningful lives. While there are still great problems with schools and universities that include both methodologies and financial considerations, I am far from alone is voicing both my concerns and my ideas for approaching them. Teachers, professors, parents, and the students themselves are quite vocal about their expectations for preparing each generation for the future. As such education is a subject that quite often finds its way into political discourse. There is much debate over financing and structuring of our public school system, and such discussions while slow to cause actual changes still manage to keep a modicum of attention on one of the most important issues in our country.

On the other hand, mental illness and how we deal with it is a kind of orphan. It is one of those exceedingly uncomfortable subjects that make us squirm even at the mere mention. Furthermore it is maddeningly misunderstood by those who have been fortunate enough not to experience its crushing effects. It is a disease with physical origins that are not as easy to see as a case of diabetes or a heart attack. The science around it is still in its infancy compared to other medical issues. There are few massive institutions like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that are dedicated to unlocking the secrets to combating mental illness. The funding for those who choose to enter the world of psychology or psychiatry is generally well below that of other medical fields, and, speaking of fields, we never see athletes donning a color to promote support and awareness of those individuals and their family members who fight relentlessly and alone to care for loved ones ravaged by mental illness. It is all too easy to believe that nobody is particularly concerned about those who endure diseases like chronic depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and other forms of mind numbing illness. Instead we look away from those that we all too often blithely categorize as “crazy.” In fact, I am certain that I lost many of my potential readers in the first paragraph of this blog as soon as I mentioned mental illness.

I have not secreted the fact that my dear mother had bipolar disorder nor that me and my brothers became her lifelong caretakers in an odyssey that lasted from 1969 until her death in 2011. It was often a frustrating journey punctuated by a seeming lack of concern by a society that all too many times shunned our mother when she was most in need of support. A lack of doctors, hospitals, finances and most of all understanding complicated our search for a kind and compassionate resolution to her needs and ours. Along the way we encountered dedicated professionals who were as troubled as we were like Dr. Thomas Brandon and Dr. Jary Lesser, but we also found many who had been so chewed up alive by the laws and the lack of funding that they had become far too cynical to be of help. We learned who the people were that we could trust, and realized that their numbers were far fewer than we had hoped.

On this past Sunday I received a text from my youngest daughter insisting that I watch a documentary on Netflix called, God Knows Where I Am. Without revealing any spoilers she simply said that it was sad but quite good, so I decided to end what had been a glorious day spent with my grandsons by viewing the film. I soon learned that it was the story of a woman who was found dead inside a vacant farmhouse, seemingly the victim of starvation. Amazingly she had filled several spiral notebooks with daily descriptions of her strange saga including a final declaration that included her name, Social Security number, and designation of where she wished to be buried. What investigators ultimately found is that the victim, Linda Bishop, was from a middle class family that had been filled with love and delightful experiences. Linda was well educated and possessed a personality that garnered her many friends. She married, had a daughter whom she adored, and eventually divorced. The rest of the tale devolves into a brutally heartbreaking saga of her crushing fall into mental illness and the ways in which our current system of dealing with cases such as hers totally failed both Linda and her family.

As I watched the film I found myself feeling as though it was my own mother’s story and that of me and my brothers. I was able to relate to every segment of the unfolding tragedy. My stomach clinched into the old familiar knot that often plagued me whenever my mom was particularly sick. I have been to all of the same dark places that Linda Bishop’s loved ones have been. I know from my own experiences how much truth lies in this documentary, and I hope beyond hope that enough people will watch it and embrace it so that a kind of revolution will begin aimed at fixing a very broken system that too often leaves everyone concerned in a state of abject fear and dejection.

My brothers and I were lucky enough to keep my mother from the kind of harm that overcame Linda Bishop, but it was a battle that we waged virtually every single day, and mostly alone. It was a fight not just for her life but our own. I know that we made many mistakes, but ultimately we slew the dragon of ignorance and lack of concern that made every step of the way more difficult that it need have been. I will speak out for those who have mental illnesses and for their families until I draw my last breath. I will never quite understand why it is not yet one of the most important causes in our world, but I will not let the lack of interest stand in my way of bringing awareness. For now I simply implore everyone to watch God Knows Where I Am. Surely it will tear at your heart.

Unrest

omar-jen-wheelchair-woodsShe is incredibly bright and beautiful, a graduate of Harvard who was about to complete her doctorate at Princeton. She was in love with a brilliant man and the two of them travelled the world together. They made plans to marry, have a family, build their stunning careers together, and then she caught the flu. It was a particularly harsh case with fevers of one hundred four degrees. When she was well once again she felt debilitated, but thought little of the residual effects. She had after all been very ill. She told herself that it would simply take time to regain her energy, but something was very wrong because instead of growing stronger she began to feel more and more weak. There were even times when her mind did not seem to work properly. She was unable to find the proper words to express herself. It was all so frightening.

Eventually her symptoms became so concerning that she sought the expertise of a medical doctor. He insinuated that it was all in her head, diagnosing her with what used to be known as hysteria. He suggested that she was reacting to some deep seated trauma that she most likely was unable to remember. He sent her home with no real explanation for what was happening, and she began to wonder if she was indeed going crazy. That’s when she got an idea.

The next time her symptoms became so severe that she literally collapsed in pain, unable to move or express herself, she asked her husband to film the incident. She took the video to a neurologist who was stunned by what he saw. He eventually told her that she had ME. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a strange disease that is thought to afflict ten to fifteen million people worldwide. There is no definitive test for the illness and no cure. The diagnosis is made based on symptoms alone which include excessive fatigue after mental or physical activity, intolerance to exercise, joint and/or muscle pain, memory problems, difficulty walking, sore throats, headaches, flu-like symptoms, sleep disturbance, bowel problems and mood swings.

The disease is also known as chronic fatigue syndrome and affects those who have it along a spectrum from individuals who endure a mild attack and then recover fully, to those who become completely homebound and bed ridden. There is no known cause but the disease appears to follow otherwise fairly typical and minor illnesses like the flu. Some believe that the roots of the problems lie in hormonal or allergy issues, but none of the research has proven any of the theories. It is a greatly misunderstood disease that sometimes results in psychiatric diagnoses rather than physical ones.

The woman whose life was so impacted by ME is Jennifer Brea, and she has a debilitating case of the disease that has radically altered the trajectory of her life. In a fashion keeping with her personality she decided to film her journey along with that of four other victims so that she might shed light on a mostly misunderstood illness. In conjunction with Sundance Films she created the documentary. Unrest, that chronicles her experiences as well those of the four others whose lives have been so radically changed after contracting ME. The film debuted on the PBS program Independent Lens this January and its power to visually explain what happens to those who have ME is emotionally visceral.

Jennifer Brea holds back nothing in her depiction of what ME has done to her and the relationship that she shares with her husband. She honestly expresses the fears and disappointments that plague her as much as the symptoms. She presents a compelling argument for more research by noting that those who are stricken often become like missing persons as they are forced to be hostages to their illness. She tells a compelling story of families broken apart and individuals losing their identities all while the rest of the world remains mostly ignorant of the horrors of this strange condition.

Her own story is one of the love that she and her husband share in spite of the problems that have so changed the way that they once thought they might live. She wants to be able to give him the kind of relationship that she had thought they would have, but instead is continually thwarted by recurrences of the most trying symptoms. Her husband has nobly stood by her, but even his patience is often tried by the confusing nature of his wife’s illness.

Ms. Brea shows a family in Sweden whose child was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility because doctors there were unwilling to accept a diagnosis of ME for her. Brea also introduces us to a woman who had been a happy wife and mother, one who had no idea that she would eventually be confined to bed with her own husband believing that she was just insane rather than physically ill. Her marriage deteriorated and she struggled to survive. When one of her daughters came down with the same disease her world unraveled even more.

The film is so personal, so real that those of us viewing the stories become involved with the characters, particularly Jennifer Brea herself. We watch her gaining strength and find ourselves hoping as much as she and her husband do that she will somehow miraculously improve. We cry with empathy as we become all too familiar with the struggles associated with ME.

Unrest is a touching and important documentary and quite worthy of the accolades that it has received. Hopefully it will also become the impetus for more research into the mysterious illness that it depicts with so much unflinching insight and compassion. At the present time very little is being done to learn how and why this illness affects certain people. There is only a smattering of interest in finding something that will cure those afflicted with its devastating symptoms. It is a grand mystery that shows no signs of being solved while real people suffer from the misunderstandings and lack of knowledge surrounding it. Hopefully Jennifer Brea has opened a door of awareness that will ultimately lead to the studies that will eradicate it or at least lead to more hopeful treatments. Perhaps just by spreading information about ME Unrest will at the very least bring more compassion to those who deal with its tragic effects.